Usually, when trying to memorize new information, we think that the more work we put in, the better the result will be. However, what is really needed for a good result is to do nothing from time to time. Literally! Just dim the lights, sit back and enjoy 10-15 minutes of relaxation. You will find that your memory of the information you have just learned is much better than if you were trying to use that short amount of time more productively.
Of course, this does not mean that you need to spend less time remembering information, but research indicates that you should strive for “minimal interference” during breaks – deliberately avoiding any activities that can interfere with the delicate process of memory formation. No need to do business, check e-mail or scroll through the feed on social networks. Give your brain a chance to completely reboot without distractions.
It seems like the perfect mnemonic technique for students, but this discovery could also bring some relief to people with amnesia and some forms of dementia, offering new ways to release hidden, previously unrecognized learning and memory abilities.
The benefits of quiet rest for remembering information were first documented in 1900 by the German psychologist Georg Elias Müller and his student Alfons Pilzecker. In one of their memory consolidation sessions, Müller and Pilzecker first asked their participants to learn a list of nonsense syllables. After a short memorization time, half of the group was immediately given the second list, while the rest were given a six-minute break before continuing.
When tested an hour and a half later, the two groups showed strikingly different results. The participants who were given a break remembered almost 50% of their list, compared to an average of 28% for the group that didn’t have time to rest and reset. These results indicated that after learning new information, our memory is particularly fragile, making it more susceptible to interference from new information.
Although other researchers have occasionally revisited this discovery, it was not until the early 2000s that more was known about the possibilities of memory thanks to groundbreaking research by Sergio Della Sala of the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan of the University of Missouri.
The researchers were interested in seeing if this technique could improve the memories of people who have suffered neurological damage, such as a stroke. Similar to Mueller and Pilzeker’s study, they gave their participants lists of 15 words and tested them after 10 minutes. Some of the participants after memorizing the words were offered standard cognitive tests; the rest of the participants were asked to lie down in a darkened room, but not to fall asleep.
The results were amazing. Although the technique did not help the two most severely amnesic patients, others were able to remember three times as many words as usual – up to 49% instead of the former 14% – almost like healthy people without neurological damage.
The results of the following studies were even more impressive. The participants were asked to listen to the story and answer related questions after an hour. Participants who did not get a chance to rest were able to remember only 7% of the facts from the story; those who had a rest remembered up to 79%.
Della Sala and a former student of Cowan’s at Heriot-Watt University conducted several follow-up studies that confirmed earlier findings. It turned out that these short rest periods can also improve our spatial memory – for example, they helped participants remember the location of various landmarks in a virtual reality environment. Importantly, this benefit persists a week after the initial training challenge and appears to benefit young and old alike.
In each case, the researchers simply asked the participants to sit in an isolated, dark room, free of mobile phones or other such distractions. “We didn’t give them any specific instructions as to what they should or shouldn’t do while on vacation,” says Dewar. “But the questionnaires completed at the end of our experiments show that most people just let their minds relax.”
However, for the effect of relaxation to work, we must not strain ourselves with unnecessary thoughts. For example, in one study, participants were asked to imagine a past or future event during their break, which appeared to diminish their memory of recently learned material.
It is possible that the brain is using any potential downtime to reinforce the data it has recently learned, and reducing extra stimulation during this time may make this process easier. Apparently, neurological damage can make the brain especially vulnerable to interventions after learning new information, so the break technique has been especially effective for stroke survivors and people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers agree that taking breaks to learn new information can help both people who have suffered neurological damage and simply those who need to memorize large layers of information.
In an age of information overload, it’s worth remembering that our smartphones aren’t the only thing that needs to be recharged on a regular basis. Our minds work the same way.